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Wolfe, Thomas Clayton

Category: Writer


Thomas Clayton Wolfe (October 3, 1900 – September 15, 1938) was an American novelist.  Despite dying at only 38, Wolfe wrote four lengthy novels, plus many short stories, dramatic works, and novellas.

He is known for mixing highly original, poetic, rhapsodic, and impressionistic prose with autobiographical writing. His books, written and published from the 1920s to the 1940s, vividly reflect on American culture and the mores of that period, filtered through Wolfe's sensitive, sophisticated, and hyper-analytical perspective.


Why is he on the site?  J B Priestley was only slightly acquainted with Wolfe but shared many common friends.  When Priestley was researching for Man and Time he came to realise that Wolfe was one of a small number of writers that had premonitions and one of the premonitions strongest in Wolfe’s mind was the date of his death.

Man and Time – J B Priestley
It is something that a few of us writers have noticed, especially when we have been considering other writers, who offer us the best examples because we know more about them than we do about most other men.  It is that some men seem to be aware in a mysterious way how much or how little time they have at their disposal; as if deep within their being there was a clock set to tick their years away or a whispering warning calendar

Premonitions of a short life


Wolfe was convinced he was not going to enjoy a long life – and it was no morbid premonition, but simply a ‘knowing’ which affected his whole work rate, output and social life.

The New York Times obituary:
His was one of the most confident young voices in contemporary American literature, a vibrant, full-toned voice which it is hard to believe could be so suddenly stilled. The stamp of genius was upon him, though it was an undisciplined and unpredictable genius.... There was within him an unspent energy, an untiring force, an unappeasable hunger for life and for expression …..

It also affected his approach to relationships, as his affairs were as fast paced as his work rate.  In 1925, he met Aline Bernstein (1882–1955), a scene designer for the Theatre Guild. Eighteen years his senior, she was married to a successful stockbroker with whom she had two children. In October 1925, she and Wolfe became lovers and remained so for five years. Their affair was turbulent and sometimes combative.


Wolfe was born in Asheville, North Carolina, the youngest of eight children of William Oliver Wolfe (1851–1922) and Julia Elizabeth Westall (1860–1945).

There are many logical reasons why Wolfe should have been preoccupied with death.  His father, a successful stone carver, ran a gravestone business and while the family was in St. Louis, his 12-year-old brother Grover died of typhoid fever.  Wolfe was closest to his brother Ben, whose early death at age 26 is chronicled in Look Homeward, Angel.  On the other hand six of the children lived to adulthood and his mother was a dynamo of energy buying first a boarding house, then buying and selling many other properties, eventually becoming a successful real estate speculator.  In 1922, Wolfe received his master's degree from Harvard. His father died in Asheville in June of that year, an event that would strongly influence his writing, but only in the sense it somehow spurred him on even more. 

Aline Bernstein

Wolfe did not confine his prophetic ability to his own death.  He began to study at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) when he was 15 years old. A member of the Dialectic Society and Pi Kappa Phi fraternity, he predicted that his portrait would one day hang in New West near that of celebrated North Carolina governor Zebulon Vance, which it does today.

We have not provided an observation as we have no specific statement from Wolfe himself, but Priestley’s words ring true

Man and Time – J B Priestley
Thomas Wolfe was a giant of a man, he died at the age of 38; and in his work and in his whole way of life he seemed to be wrestling with and raging against a profound conviction that too little time had been allotted to him.  Gigantically and frenziedly he worked, filling huge ledgers with millions of words; and he played, talking and eating and drinking and making love enormously, all as if he knew he had, so to speak, to beat the clock.

The prolific work rate of Thomas Wolfe


Wolfe saw less than half of his work published in his lifetime, there being much unpublished material remaining after his death. He was the first American writer to leave two complete, unpublished novels in the hands of his publisher at death. Two Wolfe novels, The Web and the Rock and You Can't Go Home Again, were  "two of the longest one-volume novels ever written" (nearly 700 pages each).

  • The Return of Buck Gavin - Aspiring to be a playwright, in 1919 Wolfe enrolled in a playwriting course. His one-act play, The Return of Buck Gavin, was performed by the newly formed Carolina Playmakers,
  • The Third Night -  was performed by the Playmakers in December 1919
  • The Mountains: A Play in One Act; The Mountains: A Drama in Three Acts and a Prologue -  Wolfe graduated from UNC with a B.A. in June 1920. In September of that year, he entered the Graduate School for Arts and Sciences at Harvard University, where he studied playwriting under George Pierce Baker. Two versions of his play The Mountains were performed by Baker's 47 Workshop in 1921.
  • Welcome to our City: A Play in Ten Scenes - Wolfe continued to study for another year with Baker in the 47 Workshop, which produced his ten-scene play Welcome to Our City in May 1923.  In February 1924, he began teaching English as an instructor at New York University (NYU), a position he occupied periodically for almost seven years.  Wolfe was unable to sell any of his plays  because of their great length.
  • Look Homeward, Angel (1929) - Wolfe returned to Europe in the summer of 1926 and began writing the first version of an autobiographical novel titled O Lost. The narrative, which evolved into Look Homeward, Angel, fictionalized his early experiences in Asheville, and chronicled family, friends, and the boarders at his mother's establishment on Spruce Street. The original manuscript of O Lost was over 1100 pages (333,000 words) long. It was submitted to Scribner's, where the editing was done by Maxwell Perkins, the most prominent book editor of the time, who cut the book considerably.
  • No Door  - a novella, 1933; was published in two installments in Scribner's Magazine in 1933 and 1934, and later become part of his full-length Of Time and the River
  • Of Time and the River (1935) - After four more years writing in Brooklyn, the second novel Wolfe submitted to Scribner's was The October Fair, a multi-volume epic roughly the length of Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time. After considering the commercial possibilities of publishing the book in full, Perkins opted to cut it significantly and create a single volume. Titled Of Time and the River, it was more commercially successful than Look Homeward, Angel.
  • From Death to Morning (1935)
  • I Have a Thing to Tell You (1936) - Wolfe spent much time in Europe and was especially popular and at ease in Germany, where he made many friends. However, in 1936 he witnessed incidents of discrimination against Jews, which upset him and changed his mind about the political developments in the country. He returned to America and published a story based on his observations ("I Have a Thing to Tell You") in The New Republic. Following its publication, Wolfe's books were banned by the German government, and he was prohibited from traveling there.
  • The Story of a Novel (1936)
  • Chickamauga (Short Story) (1937) - a short story set during the US Civil War battle of the same name.
  • The Child By Tiger (Short Story) - 1937 in the Saturday Evening Post of 9/11
  • The Lost Boy (1937)
  • The Web and the Rock (1939) - published posthumously
  • You Can't Go Home Again (1940)  - published posthumously
  • The Hills Beyond (1941)  - published posthumously
  • Mannerhouse: A Play in a Prologue and Four Acts (1948) - published posthumously
  • A Western Journal: A Daily Log of the Great Parks Trip, June 20-July 2, 1938 (1951) - published posthumously
  • The Letters of Thomas Wolfe (1956) - published posthumously
  • Short Novels of Thomas Wolfe (1961)- published posthumously
  • Beyond Love and Loyalty: The Letters of Thomas Wolfe and Elizabeth Nowell (1983)  - published posthumously
  • The Hound of Darkness (1986) - published posthumously
  • The Collected Stories of Thomas Wolfe (1987) - Francis E. Skipp, ed.
  • The Starwick Episodes (1994) - published posthumously
  • The Party at Jack's (1995) published posthumously
  • God's Lonely Man (undated essay)


He was possibly left handed

In 1938, after submitting over one million words of manuscript to his new editor, Edward Aswell, Wolfe left New York for a tour of the West. On the way, he stopped at Purdue University and gave a lecture, "Writing and Living," and then spent two weeks travelling through 11 national parks in the West, the only part of the country he had never visited.

In July, Wolfe became ill with pneumonia while visiting Seattle, spending three weeks in the hospital there. His sister Mabel closed her boarding house in Washington, D.C. and went to Seattle to care for him. Complications arose, and Wolfe was eventually diagnosed with miliary tuberculosis.

On September 6, he was sent to Baltimore's Johns Hopkins Hospital for treatment by the most famous neurosurgeon in the country, Dr. Walter Dandy, but an operation revealed that the disease had overrun the entire right side of his brain. Without regaining consciousness, he died 18 days before his 38th birthday.

Man and Time – J B Priestley

But what is this clock, marking only so many years, that such men seem to consult in the dark of their being? We do not know.  All we do know for certain is that no such clock, no such warnings can come out of the passing time that we are told is all we have.  They belong to a larger idea of Time, like all these dreams that come true.